Sermon 06/09/2019: Languages of Faith

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Sermon by Sophie & David Lapp Jost


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Community Mennonite Church: it is good to be back with you all! And really, on Pentecost Sunday, what a perfect time to talk about our year in Nazareth, where we worked in three languages with people from every inhabited continent at the Nazareth Trust!

In Acts 2, we read that at Pentecost, a crowd exclaimed, utterly amazed, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?” This exclamation was actually familiar to us. Due to a strange choice of words on the Nazareth Village website, which claimed until recently that “our experienced local guides will lead you,” we are often greeted with amusement by the mainly Israeli Jewish tour leaders. Upon handing their tour groups to me, leaders often joke “so, David will be our local guide today!” “No,” I have to say, “I’m no Galilean.” At least I can confirm when occasionally pressed that yes, my name is actually David.

At the Nazareth Village, though, one gets the sense that the story of Pentecost is continuing. In a year, we give tours in 22 languages. While a modest majority of the guests are American, Scandinavian, or Dutch, many are Indian, Brazilian, Guatemalan. Groups that I led came from most every church, from Baptists to Irish Holdeman Mennonites to non-denominational churches to the 1,900 year old Syriac Church of India. Two thousand years ago, Jewish reformers speaking many tongues left Jerusalem; today at the Village, a stream of people speaking many tongues come back. At the Nazareth Village, we blend history, archeological excavations, architectural replicas, scripture, and commentary on present-day Nazareth and its people, and present this to guests on a guided tour.

In addition to leading guests on tours of the Village, I coordinated weekly devotionals and chapels for the international volunteers with whom we worked, and visited patients at the Nazareth Hospital with a team of local chaplains.  This provided exciting chances to interact with patients as well as our fellow volunteers and friends on a spiritual level. After graduating last spring with an MDiv from AMBS in pastoral ministry, it was great to explore these new forms and levels of ministry work in an unfamiliar setting. In all these ministries, we were both privileged to see God at work, and hear from others ways that they experience the Spirit at work in the world. We want to tell you about how our colleagues, patients, fellow churchgoers, and village guests spoke to us not only with words, but with languages of faith. In many ways, our fellow Christians helped us see new ways of encountering God, sensing the Spirit, and following Jesus. Testimony, pilgrimage, reverent speech, patient persistence, liturgy, and literalism were some languages for sharing faith that we heard. We hope to find ways to continue noticing these in the future, and we hope you can, too.

We begin with testimony. We were honored this year to hear many talk about their lives of faith, and how they have encountered Jesus. A major theme at the hospital this year was forgiveness. I appreciated hearing comments from our Spiritual Director on what forgiveness can mean in the Arab cultural context, particularly in relation to issues of land and peoplehood, but also religion. One striking example of testimony that David and I got to experience came from one of my fellow chaplains, Simon, a man from the nearby village of Reine. The week before we arrived Simon’s young cousin Jonathan was brutally stabbed near his home and later died in the Nazareth Hospital. Jonathan was the only child of parents who had waited years for him to come. Yet after his death they quickly became known, to the surprise of many in the area, for their choice to forgive his murderers. I heard this story the first week we arrived in Nazareth, and several times since, but each time I was amazed to hear how often this provides Simon with a chance to share with others in the community, especially at the hospital. In that cultural context retributive justice is common, and so Simon is regularly asked by patients, particularly Muslims, how can this kind of forgiveness be possible? This question provides him with a clear opening for sharing the Gospel and Jesus’ message of forgiveness.

Of course, parts of this story may sound familiar to those in our community who know of Michael Sharp’s murder in 2017, or of the forgiveness of Amish parents whose children were killed at the Nickel Mines school in 2006. Not only do these and or Jonathan’s parents’ stories serve as testimony to the human capacity to forgive evils, but most importantly they serve as testimony to the redeeming work of Christ throughout the world.

For many people, including us, travel to the Holy Land offers a chance to reflect on what God has done and is doing in a new place, and consider how that might inform one’s own life. This is pilgrimage. The tradition of going somewhere to understand these things better tends to be far from modern Western minds. Many of those of us who can travel often — for work, to visit family, for vacation. Traveling to deepen our faith, however is less usual.

We had the privilege of seeing many people from all over the world, and their excitement as they encountered this part of the world where the Christian faith began. For people from a wide range of Christian (and, of course, Muslim and Jewish) backgrounds, a visit to the Holy Land is a period of prayer, intense and continuous learning, and reflection. It’s amazing to see people prostrated on and kissing a stone in the Holy Sepulchre, or hear dozens of pilgrims singing as they walk up the Via Dolorosa, the route of Jesus’ Passion. Once when I was trying to enter the West Bank during Ramadan, I was crushed for about two and a half hours in a crowd of Palestinian worshipers who came in to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the main Muslim holy site. Return entry to Bethlehem was an ordeal, with a massive crowd of people crushing together and shoving each other to squeeze through one or two revolving turnstiles. The chance to pray was worth a lot to them.

It was not uncommon to see people experiencing a kind of pilgrim euphoria at the Nazareth Village, too. Many of our visitors prayed, spoke, and worshipped in a different way than they did at home. Seeing excavated terraces where Jesus walked and a wine press where Jesus likely treaded grapes the visitors are often visibly moved, emotionally and spiritually.

My favorite case of pilgrim euphoria gone wrong occurred early in our time there. Our last station in the village is our replica synagogue, where we discuss Synagogue architecture, 1st century Jewish worship, and tell the story of Luke 4 and discuss Jesus’ rejection of the warrior Messiah vision that his audience craved. After this presentation, groups sometimes ask to have some worship. If there is time before the next group’s arrival, we happily oblige.

One day, I had a group of about 30 apparently ordinary Americans. After our tour, they asked if they could do worship. I agreed, and they began singing, first singing a lovely hymn in four part harmony, and then some call-and-response chanting. I’m going to ask you to join me in this, CMC. Please chant after me. I don’t remember all of their prayers — most were ordinary — but I remember a few. “Lord bless this village!” “Lord, bless the city of Nazareth!” “Lord, bless David.” “Lord, bless David’s family.” At this time, the group leader turned to me — he had occasionally broken up the chanting by saying or asking something — and asked me “David, you said you were married. What’s your wife’s name, and do you have kids?” “Sophie,” I said, “and not yet,” I said, apparently in a way that sounded sad. He turned back to his tour group, resuming the chant “Lord, bless Sophie,” and then “and Lord, open Sophie’s womb at the right time!” “and Lord, strengthen David’s seed at the right time!”

I stared at the ground, chuckling and reflecting that I’d presumably never have an experience like this again.

The different speech patterns in Nazareth impressed and formed us, particularly the sincerity of reverent speech. In the US context it’s very normal for us to hear people says things like “oh my God,” “oh Lord,” or “Lord have mercy,” as part of our daily language. In this cultural setting such language is rarely used to literally evoke thoughts of God, and is also often negative. In Nazareth people would use these same phrases as well, but much more often such language in Arabic is intentionally used to evoke thoughts and references to God. When asking a Muslim how they are, one might get the response “ilhumdullilah,” which means “praise be to God.” In the same way a Christian might respond “nushkuralla,”… “thanks be to God.” In this Arab setting these phrases are used and understood as a reference to the person’s well-being coming from God. When you want to say that you hope something will come true, or will go well, both Christians and Muslims say “inshallah,” … “God willing.” Again, these phrases are literal faith language used many times a day, with the effect of keeping the speaker and the spoken-to grounded in their human experience as those worshipping the One who is all-in-all.

Another aspect of daily reverent speech relates to the public communal celebrations of the Christian year. In many ways Israeli society is secular, primarily in the Jewish spheres, but increasingly in the Christian and Muslim Arab spheres as well. However, this hasn’t stopped either faith from continuing to celebrate their most sacred yearly events. Those of you who read our pray letters heard some about what it was like to engage in both Christmas and Holy Week/Easter celebrations in Nazareth. Both were interesting and exciting, but I was especially blown away by how often huge crowds of believers gather in public spaces (on the main road through town at Christmas, on the roads outside the churches at Easter) to celebrate together on these occasions. I became so much more aware of what it means to have grown up in a country where church and state are (mostly!) separated. Even singing Christmas carols in the three Nazarene hospitals wasn’t something that required special permission or visitor name tags. The hospitals are all Christian, but Christians and Muslims alike joined us in song that evening. Like the daily Muslim calls to prayer, this open proclamation of faith was not uncomfortable, even for those who have different beliefs.

Over the last several years in Goshen, we enjoyed visits with Evelyn, Eleanor, and Alan Kreider, stalwarts of the Goshen Mennonite community. We appreciated Alan Kreider’s book, the Patient Ferment of the Early Church, which presents an inspiring perspective on how the church took root and grew despite a lack of power or a cultural foundation in most of the Roman Empire. Alan cites patience as a key part of the story, and the willingness to endure decades of stagnation and even persecution for the sake of the Gospel.

The patience and persistence of Palestinians is extraordinary. “Existence is resistance,” read signs in Bethlehem and Hebron. Seventy years into the occupation, prospects for a better life for Palestinians remain bleaker than ever. International support for the occupation is strong. Both non-violent Palestinian resistance and the occupation’s critics in the West are silenced and cynically dismissed in the media as motivated by anti-Semitism. Most of the Arab world now works with Netanyahu, and even a surge of Palestinian advocacy in the West would be less effective, with the region lining up behind Israel.

In this context, hope is irrational, and to work toward justice is to work for something we may well not see in our lifetimes. And yet, so many Palestinians show this spirit of patient ferment. We think of the only Gazan we met, a Christian at a bus stop in Nazareth who works at a Baptist hospital in Gaza. In better times, he met and married a woman from Nazareth; now he is only allowed in to see her and their two daughters for one or two months annually. We think of longtime friends of the Lapp family, a family from Bethlehem with a Palestinian father and American mother. The mother was never allowed a long-term residency in Palestine and was expelled last fall; only after enormous effort, an expenditure of about $20,000, and international diplomatic intervention was she allowed to temporarily return in time for her son’s wedding in Bethlehem last month.  We think of taxi drivers and shopkeepers who eagerly told us their family stories, hoping they could get Americans to listen, while also showing us hospitality despite all our country has done. The way people continue to show faith and to act out of love seems to us to be a sign of God at work, and a sign of deep faith in eschatological justice.

Liturgical experiences were something that David and I looked forward to when we moved to Nazareth, especially having both grown up in Mennonite churches. While most of the other volunteers attended the local evangelical Baptist church, David and I regularly attended the local Maronite Catholic church. This church is located on the top of the highest hill in town in a modern building which replaced the previous building in the Old City. The Maronite church is an Eastern Rite Catholic church, which began around 400 CE with Saint Maron, and only became Catholic in the 1600s. This means that the church has retained much of their earlier more orthodox rites and traditions, such as iconography. The image you see on the screen here is one of the stained glass windows at the Maronite church, all of which depict stories from the New Testament. Although we attended the Maronite church regularly, I especially enjoyed several visits to the Greek Orthodox church across town, which provided a completely different experience of liturgical worship and tradition within the same Arab society and culture.

Some of my experiences of liturgical language in the hospital included the practice of crossing oneself before or after prayer. Because the Christian community in Nazareth is primarily Catholic, often before praying with a patient that we knew to be Christian the local chaplains would cross themselves to open their prayer. Although all the chaplains are Protestants, many of them engaged with patients in this way to be hospitable to their needs in a vulnerable time.

Another experience of liturgical language that I was aware of and adored during our time in Nazareth is the language of religious art. As has historically been the case worldwide, the liturgical churches are those most prone to having religious art in their sanctuary, in worship, and as a part of home life. In Nazareth these churches include the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Melkite Catholic, and Maronite Catholic churches. For historical reasons the Melkite and Maronite Churches retain the iconography tradition that the Roman Catholics dropped early on. In these and the other major churches in Nazareth and elsewhere around the country we got to see how religious art is used and taken very seriously as a part of what it means to proclaim the Christian message in the Holy Land with, or without words.

People in Nazareth read the Bible more literally than most of our Western peers, and we valued this literalism. Coming from an intellectual Christian community, it refreshed me to see a context in which people often engage Biblical stories as a recounting of real events. This does not mean that we or most of the people around us believe that everything recounted in the Bible happened literally as described. But among our Christian sisters and brothers there, we sensed a deep belief that the Gospels are more or less accurate accounts. This was refreshing, as I think without a communal belief in the church that the Gospels tell a more or less true story, Christian faith is unlikely to be passed on, through generations or to neighbors.

This feeling of the reality of the Bible was not limited to Christians, either. For people of Abrahamic faiths in Israel and even secular people, a certain measure of literalism is intuitive. Various Biblical stories are taught through the public education system, faith-based institutions, and heard in the local community. As Sophie has speculated in the past, it may be easier to believe these things when you live in the place where they happened. Residents of Nazareth took us to their roofs on multiple occasions to point out villages where events in Jesus’ life took place, or told us about what cliff they thought Jesus might have been taken to to be thrown off in Luke 4.

For me, two people especially spoke this faith language. One was Christine Farah, our supervisor. Christine was educated as a human rights lawyer in Wales, and entirely shares our perspective on Israel-Palestine and politics in general, and is an ardent socialist. She is also a devout Christian. She emphatically asks visiting groups to pray for Nazareth and prayed with us through some of the more difficult times with my dad’s health back home. Like many in Nazareth, Christine talks about Jesus’ life growing up there, not as a possibility, but as an event. Like Jesus himself, Christine talks about the devil as a reality; not as a concept, but a real, influential being set against God.

Unsurprisingly, we read a lot about Jesus this last year, and one text that also presented a clear approach for me was NT Wright’s Simply Jesus. Wright has a gift for avoiding the cultural baggage of much traditional Christian language while still telling Jesus’ story. He describes how Jesus came at a moment of convergence of multiple forces: the imperial assertion of Rome, the hopefulness and also corruption of his own community, and the onrushing, long-hidden, Spirit of the God of the Old Testament. Wright’s work does well at reading both Testaments on the terms of their authors while also engaging history.

We want to end on a note of thanks, and of looking forward. We have been richly blessed in our time in Nazareth. We’re so grateful to you, Community Mennonite, for helping nurture us throughout life, sending us, supporting us, and praying for us and for peace and justice. We’re glad for the chances we had to grow in relationship with God and people in Nazareth, and we hope very much to go back, for short times and also potentially long term again, at a time when Israel would be more likely to grant us visas. We look forward to continuing in Germany in international ministry next year; Sophie more directly in congregational work, and me resuming engagement with refugee issues and church-related environmental work. We feel energized and excited to go into this new chapter, taking with us many fond memories and a deepened sense of God at work in the world. Thank you.


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Community Mennonite Church
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